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Submissive Egocentrism

If the hallmark of the dominating ego is control over others, the hallmark of the submissive ego is strategic subservience (Figure 10.9). When in this mode of thinking, people gain power not through the direct struggle for power but, instead, through subservience to those who have power. They submit to the will of others to get those (powerful) others to act in their selfish interest. In this way, people with submissive egos gain indirect power. To be successful, they learn the arts of flattery and personal manipulation. They must become skilled actors and actresses, appearing to be genuinely interested in the well being and interests of the other while in reality pursuing their own interest through the other. At the same time, they must hide this mode of functioning from themselves, as they have to maintain some level of self-respect. If they had to consciously admit to themselves that they were submitting to others to have their own way, they would have trouble feeling justified.

Figure 10.9. The logic of the submissive ego.

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There are countless examples of this mode of functioning in everyday life. The teenage female, for example, who pretends to enjoy fishing (while being inwardly bored by it) so her boyfriend will like her better is engaging in this type of thinking. She submits to his desires and his will only because she wants to gain specific ends (of having a prestigious boyfriend, gaining attention from him, feeling secure in the relationship, and so on). Though she readily agrees to go fishing with him, she probably will end up resenting having done so in the long run—especially once she secures his commitment to her. By virtue of the bad faith implicit in the strategies of the submissive ego, it is common for resentment eventually to develop in the person who functions consistently in this mindset.

If the pattern of thinking of the submissive ego takes root in the young woman we just imagined, she eventually might marry a financially secure man so she can be taken care of, will not have to work, and can enjoy the luxuries of a life without personal sacrifice. Consciously she may deceive herself into believing she loves the man. Yet, because she does not relate to him rationally, the relationship is likely to be dysfunctional.

A similar pattern often occurs in social groups. Within most groups there will be a structure of power, with some playing a dominant and others a submissive role.

Most people will play both roles, depending on the situation. Nazi Germany and the ideology of Fascism provide an excellent example of a system that simultaneously cultivated both dominating and submissive behavior. In this system, nearly everyone had to learn to function within both egocentric types, depending on the context. A hierarchy was established in which everyone was required to give absolute obedience to those above them and to have absolute authority over everyone below them. Only Hitler did not have to use the strategy of submission, as there was no one for him to submit to. Theoretically, no one in such a system has to rationally persuade anyone below him or her in the system. The expectation is clear: Anyone below submits; anyone above dominates.

In the ideology of most human cultures, a greater place is officially given to the use of reason in human life than it was in Fascist society. Much of the official ideology of any society, however, is more window dressing than reality. Suffice it to say that because all societies are stratified and all stratified societies have a hierarchical structure of power, all societies, to date, encourage the thinking of the dominating and submissive ego.

Part of that stratification is found in work-related contexts. In many work situations, men and women alike feel forced to operate in a submissive manner toward their supervisors, allowing themselves to be dominated and manipulated by their superiors so they can stay in favor, keep their jobs, or get promotions.

Thus, the submissive ego operates through artifice and skillful self-delusion to ensure its security, advantage, and gratification. It engages in behavior that is compliant, servile, cowering, acquiescent, to achieve its objectives—though all of these characteristics may be highly disguised. It continually capitulates, defers, caves in, succumbs, and yields to the will of others to gain advantage and maintain its artificial self-esteem.

To avoid the feeling of caving in to superiors, one of the most effective image-saving devices is to adopt the point of view of the superior. In this case, the submission appears as simple agreement: "He didn't pressure me; I agree with him."

As long as the submissive ego achieves "success," it experiences positive emotions—satisfaction, happiness, fulfillment, pleasure, and the like. To the extent that it is not achieving its goals and fails to gain its ends through submission, however, it feels any of a number of negative emotions including bitterness, resentment, animosity, ill will, spitefulness, vindictiveness, enmity, antipathy, and loathing. What is more, depending on the situation, a sense of having failed may lead to insecurity, fear, helplessness, depression, and anxiety.

When unsuccessful, the submissive ego tends to punish itself inwardly, much more than the dominating ego, which, when experiencing pain, tends to respond by inflicting pain on others. Egocentric feelings mirror egocentric thought. Hence, when inflicting pain on itself, the submissive ego sees itself as justified in feeling bad. It experiences a form of sick pleasure in reminding itself that it has every reason to feel negative emotions.

Consider, for example, the woman who believes that her husband should deal with all the unpleasant decisions that have to be made. If he asks her to handle some of those decisions, she goes along with him but is resentful as a result. She may think thoughts such as:

Why should I have to deal with these unpleasant decisions? They are his responsibility. I always have to do the things he doesn't want to do. He doesn't really care about me because if he did, he wouldn't ask me to do this.

She feels justified in thinking these negative thoughts, and in a way she enjoys the feelings of resentment that accompany such thoughts.

The submissive ego often has a "successful" relationship with a person who functions within the dominating-ego mindset. The paradigm case of this phenomenon can be found in marriages in which the male dominates and the female submits. She submits to his will. He may require that she do all the household chores. In return, either implicitly or explicitly, he agrees to take care of her (serve as the primary bread-winner). Although she may at times resent his domination, she understands and, at some level, accepts the bargain. Through rationalization she convinces herself that she probably couldn't do better with any other man, that this one provides the comforts she requires, that in essence she can put up with his domineering behavior because the pay-offs are worth it.

Thus, the submissive ego can experience a form of dysfunctional "success" as long as it feels that it is having its desires met. Take the employee who behaves in a subservient manner to a verbally abusive manager in order to get promotions. As long as the manager takes care of the employee—by looking after his interests, by giving him the promotions he is striving toward—the employee has more positive feelings. When the manager ceases doing this, however, and therefore no longer seems to be concerned with the employee's needs and desires, the employee may feel degraded and resentful of the manager and the subservient role he is forced to play. If given an opportunity, he may turn on his supervisor.

As the submissive ego relates to others, its feelings, behaviors, and thoughts are controlled by beliefs deriving from its own subconscious sense of inferiority. To justify its need to submit to the desires and will of another person, it must perceive itself as inferior to that person. Otherwise it would be unable to rationalize its subservience. It would be forced to recognize its dysfunctional thinking and behavior. Consider the following unconscious beliefs that drive the thinking of the submissive ego:

As is true for all manifestations of egocentric thinking, none of these beliefs exists in a fully conscious form. They require self-deception. Otherwise the mind would immediately recognize them as irrational, dysfunctional, and absurd. Consequently, what the mind consciously tells itself is very different from the beliefs operating in egocentric functioning. Consider the first belief, "I must go along with this decision even though I don't agree with it. Otherwise I won't be accepted." The conscious thought parallel to this unconscious one is something like: "I don't know enough about the situation to decide for myself. Even though I'm not sure this is the right decision, I'm sure the others are in a better position than I to decide." This is the thought the mind believes it is acting upon, when in reality it is basing its reasoning on the other, unconscious belief. Thinking within this logic, the person is "dishonestly" going along with the decision, in a sense pretending to agree, but all the while doing so only to forward an agenda of acceptance.

In addition to serving as a major barrier to the pursuit of rational relationships, the submissive ego stunts the development of the rational mind, limiting its capacity for insight into self. The submissive ego is enabled to do this through any number of self-protecting beliefs:

Thus, the submissive ego, like the dominating ego, creates significant barriers to development. It routinely turns to others for help when it is capable of performing without that help. The submissive ego experiences frustration, anxiety, and even depression when it fails, or when it anticipates failure, in learning situations. Whereas the dominating ego believes it already knows what it needs to know, the submissive ego often believes it is incapable of learning.

Test the Idea
To What Extent are You Egocentrically Submissive?

Think about your typical patterns of interaction with friends, family members, fellow workers, and others. Complete the following statements:

  1. I tend to be the most (egocentrically) submissive in the following types of situations…

  2. Some examples of my submissive egocentric behavior are…

  3. I am usually successful/unsuccessful when I try to manipulate others through submissiveness. My strategy is…

  4. My submissive behavior creates problems because…

To What Extent are You Egocentrically Dominating Versus Submissive?

Think about your typical patterns of interaction with friends, family members, fellow workers, and others. Do you tend to be more dominating or submissive in most situations in which you are egocentric? What about your friends, family members, co-workers? Do they tend to be more dominating or submissive? Given your experience, what problems emerge from people behaving in dominating or submissive ways?

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